The Power of Pets in Patient Care
Animals have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was unquestionably influenced by my mother’s love for animals, as she started a therapeutic horseback riding program for people with disabilities right before I was born. I grew up around horses at the barn, and my three sisters and I begged relentlessly for a family dog. When I was in second grade, my parents finally caved and we got a little, white Bichon Frise puppy named Snowball. He ended up having several health issues as a puppy and I remember sleeping on the floor by his crate to make sure he was okay through the night. He pulled through and was our favorite “brother we never had” for 15 amazing years. Reflecting back, this experience was likely one of the first to trigger my interest in the medical profession and in pursuing a caretaking career.
Even from a young age, I quickly realized that animals were able to recognize human emotion and could often help people feel better in extraordinary ways. As I got older and left for college, I knew that I eventually wanted to train a pet to be a therapy animal. Here comes the crazy part, brace yourselves… I wanted a pet mini pig. I did tons of research on how to raise a pet pig and looked into therapy training programs. Once I worked out the details, I found a reputable breeder and picked up my new mini pig, Charlie. I immediately started training him—pigs are extremely intelligent, some may say too smart! I raised Charlie like my child and socialized him by bringing him with me everywhere I could. He had a sassy streak, but when he was out visiting people (especially kids) he charmed his way into the heart of everyone we met. He followed me around everywhere like a little duck. We started volunteering at a local nursing home near my undergraduate campus in Winston-Salem, NC, as soon as I felt he was ready and Charlie absolutely LOVED visiting the residents. They adored him and gave him lots of fruit every week. A couple of residents with dementia had grown up in families who raised pigs on their farms and seeing Charlie triggered forgotten memories of their childhood which was incredible to see.
The presence of an animal most definitely makes introductions less awkward and immediately gives us a talking point to bond with patients and residents. In addition, many patients are thrilled to see an animal since they are unable to bring their pets to the hospital/nursing home. Charlie was in the process of being officially certified so he could volunteer at local hospitals at the time when he suddenly became sick and unexpectedly passed away in April of 2017 due to a urinary tract obstruction. While I still miss him every single day, I am proud of the fact that he was able to bring so much joy into the lives of many people in his short, 1.5 years of life with me. Charlie stole my heart and the hearts of many others, and in the process taught me a lot about interacting with patients of all ages and backgrounds. I hope to incorporate animal therapy into my career as a physician and give patients the opportunity to be loved on in this unique way as they try to heal in new and often scary situations.
I connected with one of Quillen’s Pharmacology professors, Dr. Ferslew, at a schoolwide fundraiser one afternoon and found out that he and his wife have two therapy dogs that volunteer at Holston Valley Medical Center in Kingsport. He heard that I used to have a therapy pig and we talked a lot about how much patients enjoy having a loving animal visit their room. Dr. Ferslew’s wife, Susan, registered their two golden retrievers (Carlie and Ginger) for the Therapy Dogs International training program in 2012. The dogs took an 8-week course with a final assessment with their instructors to achieve their certification. They usually volunteer on the weekends at Holston Valley for about 1-2 hours, depending on the day. When asked what a typical day of volunteering was like, Dr. Ferslew explained the process:
"We check in at Guest Services and enjoy visiting family members, staff and patients as they come and go through the lobby. Often times, folks will ask us to visit a particular patient in the hospital or the volunteer program will notify us that a particular patient “needs a visit” from the therapy dogs. If there aren’t specific requests we pick different parts of the hospital to find folks that would like to see, pet or just visit with our dogs. We must follow all hospital restrictions for the patients’ safety as well as ours and the dogs’. We spend time where needed and don’t have any particular schedule. It isn’t fun being in the hospital and this sure does help folks feel better."
Dr. and Mrs. Ferslew’s favorite part about volunteering with the dogs is seeing the surprise on peoples’ faces when they see dogs in the hospital. "We recently visited a patient who had just come out of surgery for the removal of a brain tumor. He was awake but had not yet been responsive to anyone after surgery. His wife was very worried about him and asked if we would visit him because he would really like seeing the dogs, especially since he had not seen his at home in awhile. When we got to the room we asked the nurse if we could visit and she said to go ahead but warned us that he may not react. As soon as he saw Carlie and Ginger he tried to move his hand and wave us over closer to him so he could pet them....Sometimes it is a patient, sometimes it is a family member in a waiting room, and sometimes it is a health care professional who needs the comfort that the dogs can bring."
I believe that a physician’s role involves taking care of the whole person, not only their physical symptoms. Providing a chance for animals to help with a patient’s emotional care is an extraordinary tool that I look forward to utilizing as a future health care provider. -Kyndall Smith, MS-2